Bubble Banter opens with 41 teams on the bubble

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Bubble Banter highlights the teams we believe are on the NCAA Bubble. If a team isn’t listed, they aren’t a bubble team at the time of the update. 

An amazing 41 teams begin the countdown as bubble teams.  Even more could have listed, and teams will come and go over the next few weeks.  To be eligible for consideration, a team had to be within the Top 100 of the RPI, and be close enough to the cutline to warrant serious consideration.  A team like South Carolina, for example, has two quality wins, but fell to No. 105 in the RPI after the loss to Auburn.  Thus, we did not include USC in this update as no team with an RPI rating that high has ever been selected as an at-large candidate.

Note:  RPI and SOS data is credited to CollegeRPI.com.  Follow along at Bracketville.

UPDATED: February 1

Automatic Bids (31): None decided | Total Spots (68): Number of total teams in the Field.

  • Projected Locks (11): Teams who project to have secured a spot in the 2011 NCAA Tournament witihout a major collapse. Some of these projected locks may become automatic qualifiers should they win their conference tournament.
  • Should Be In (17): While not yet locks, these are teams in good position to receive an at-large bid.
  • Bubble: (41): Teams projected to be at or near the cutline for being selected as at-large candidates.
  • Spots available (15): Number of available openings for the bracket based on spots reserved for automatic qualifiers, projected locks, and teams projected as Should Be In at this update.

Below is a conference breakdown of the bubble picture.

Atlantic 10
Locks: NONE | Should Be In: Temple, Xavier | Bubble: Duquesne, Rhode Island, Richmond
  • Duquesne (14-5) | RPI: 76 | SOS: 144 | – Despite a poor RPI, Duquesne opens Bubble Banter tied with Xavier atop the A-10 – including a win over Temple. Nothing to report in the non-conference season, and the Dukes’ overall SOS is a concern. Still, we can’t ignore a team that’s 7-0 in the No. 8-rated conference.
  • Rhode Island (13-8) | RPI: 82 | SOS: 95 | – Like a lot of teams, the Rams have been a mixed bag. Good wins include Boston College, at Richmond, and vs. Charleston. There’s also the losses to Quinnipiac and UIC, and a blowout loss at Xaver. URI must vault to the top of the A-10 standings.
  • Richmond (16-6) | RPI: 60 | SOS: 90 | – Spiders are hoping the non-conference win over Purdue holds a lot of weight. Richmond also won at Seton Hall and beat VCU. The lopsided home loss to Xavier is troubling and puts the Spiders two games back of the Muskateers.
ACC
Locks: Duke | Should Be In: North Carolina | Bubble: Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, Maryland, Virginia Tech
  • Boston College (14-7) | RPI: 38 | SOS: 26 | – The Eagles are an RPI oddity: Numbers are good, but the overall resume suggests work ahead. BC’s win over Texas Am early is notable, as was a good road win at Maryland to open ACC play. At the same time, BC has lost (at home) to two Ivy League schools and has dropped 3 of its past 4 games.
  • Clemson (15-6) | RPI: 69 | SOS: 100 | The Tigers make the bubble with a 4-3 ACC mark, but other than home wins over Florida State and Miami, the resume is light. Clemson has non-league losses to Old Dominion, Michigan, and South Carolina. It’ll take a strong month for the Tigers to be a serious at-large contender.
  • Florida State (15-6) | RPI: 50 | SOS: 75 | – Seminoles were only be a week away from moving into Should Be In status before another lopsided road loss – this time to Clemson. Baylor is their best non-ACC win, and the Bears have struggled. While the loss at Auburn was probably a fluke, it’s an example of inconsistent play. FSU also lost to a struggling Butler team in Hawaii. The win over Duke is big, but not enough by itself.
  • Maryland (14-7) | RPI: 70 | SOS: 63 | – Can the Terps make another February run? That’s the question. Other than an early win at Penn Sate, Maryland is void of anything out-of-conference, and the ACC is down. The closing schedule is favorable, but it will take a good finish for the Terps to contend. Game with Duke (at home) is huge.
  • Virginia Tech (14-6) | RPI: 68 | SOS: 80 | – Yet again the Hokies find themselves on the bubble, and an underwhelming non-conference profile is the biggest reason. Credit VT with playing a much better schedule, the Hokies just failed to win many of the games – the best is over fellow bubble-dweller Oklahoma State. It also hurts that VT sees Duke, North Carolina, and FSU only once in league play. Must stay with the contenders.
BIG EAST
Locks: Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Villanova | Should Be In: Syracuse, Georgetown, Louisville,West Virginia | Bubble: Cincinnati, Marquette, St. John’s
  • Cincinnati (18-4) | RPI: 46 | SOS: 128 | – As we’ve mentioned before, the Bearcats’ dreadful non-conference SOS (No. 289) leaves UC with little margin for error in the Big East. Last week’s road win at St. John’s was huge because Cincy has won most of its games at home. The closing stretch will be a challenge and it’s important for UC to stay above the fray.
  • Marquette (14-8) | RPI: 59 | SOS: 32 | – Marquette may be better than its record, but the Golden Eagles best wins have been at home, and a tough three-game road stretch is just on the horizon. Wins over Notre Dame and West Virginia help, and the Eagles’ worst loss is an early-neutral court game vs. Gonzaga. The rest have been to Top 50 RPI teams.
  • St. John’s (12-8) | RPI: 23 | SOS: 3 | – The Red Storm has some very good wins – none better than Sunday’s dominating win over Duke. There’s also a roadie at West Virgina. SJU owns the nation’s No. 3 rated overall SOS. That will help. The question is … can St. John’s win enough games down the stretch? A cross-country road trip to UCLA won’t be easy.
BIG 10
Locks: Ohio State | Should Be In: Purdue, Wisconsin, Minnesota | Bubble: Illinois, Michigan State Penn State
  • Illinois (14-7) | RPI: 39 | SOS: 24 | The Illini have lost 4 of 5 games which included dropping a second-half lead vs. Ohio State and an ugly effort at Indiana. The upcoming schedule is favorable for a rebound, but UI is at a critical juncture. Good wins include N. Carolina and Wisconsin, along with Michigan State. The loss at UIC is a sore point.
  • Michigan State (12-8) | RPI: 36 | SOS: 5 | It’s worth noting that the Spartans have played the nation’s No. 5 schedule and No. 18 non-conference schedule. MSU has also avoided any bad RPI losses – even though the home loss to Michigan was a bit shocking. With Korie Lucious dismissed for the season, the Spartans need to re-prove they are an NCAA team without him. Much like Illinois, MSU needs to start winning again.
  • Penn State (12-8) | RPI: 44 | SOS: 6 | – The Nittany Lions have been a tough out in the Big 10 and have rebounded nicely from a lackluster non-conference effort that included a home loss to Maine. Good wins include Michigan State, Illinois, and Wisconsin – at home. While close, PSU has yet to win a meaningful road game. That may have to change. The closing stretch is tough, but offers PSU some opportunities.
BIG 12
Locks: Kansas, Texas | Should Be In: Missouri, Texas AM | Bubble: Kansas State, Baylor, Colorado, Oklahoma State
  • Baylor (14-6) | RPI: 81 | SOS: 82 | – What the Bears have done is be very average. Nothing stands out to separate Baylor from any number of other teams. Best wins are Oklahoma State and Colorado at home. Neither are certain NCAA teams. Out of conference, the Bears failed to win a Top 100 RPI game and their non-league SOS ranks No. 236. No one questions the Bears’ talent, it’s whether they can win enought Big 12 games at this point.
  • Colorado (13-8) | RPI: 94 | SOS: 114 | – In back-to-back games, the Buffaloes beat Missouri at home and K-State on the road. Since, Colorado has lost four of five and four straight – including games at Nebraska and Oklahoma. A non-league win over Colorado State is notable, but overall the Buffs non-conference SOS ranks No. 307. That spells trouble. Colorado has remaining chances to win big games, they’ll need as many as they can get.
  • Kansas State (13-8) | RPI: 41 | SOS: 15 | – The Wildcats opened the season No. 3 in national polls. Ever since, there have been more questions than answers. First, K-State needs to improve its 2-5 mark in the Big 12. Next, they need to beat a Top 50 RPI opponent – KSU is currently 0-6 vs. such teams. Other than that, the power numbers are workable. More than anything, K-State needs to start winning games, they’ve dropped 5 of 7.
  • Oklahoma State (14-7) | RPI: 58 | SOS: 64 | – Cowboys, like K-State are 2-5 now in league play, so compiling wins is most important. Winning a meaningful game away from home would help too as OSU is 2-5 in true road games. Best wins are Kansas State and Missouri State at home. Best non-league win is probably Alabama. Against the Top 100, OSU is 2-6. The recent loss at Texas Tech speaks to the Cowboys’ trouble on the road. Oklahoma State also has head-to-head losses against several other bubble teams (Gonzaga, Colorado, Baylor).
MOUNTAIN WEST
Locks: BYU, San Diego State | Should Be In: UNLV | Bubble: Colorado State, New Mexico
  • Colorado State (14-6) | RPI: 49 | SOS: 58 | – At 5-2 in the Mountain West, Colorado State is certainly in the at-large discussion. Solid win at UNLV is a high point, but there are also losses to Hampton and Sam Houston. Inconsistency is a recurring theme. Overall, good wins are still lacking as CSU is 1-2 vs. Top 50 teams. Non-conference wins include So. Mississippi and Ole Miss, but neither of those are NCAA wins at this point. CSU will need to beat San Diego State and or BYU to be a realistic contender.
  • New Mexico (14-7) | RPI: 63 | SOS: 77 | – While the season hasn’t gone as planned, beating BYU at The Pit keeps the Lobos’ NCAA hopes alive. They’ve also beaten Colorado State and Colorado at home. Troubling road losses are to Utah and Wyoming. UNM’s non-conference profile is light, so it’s going to take a strong finish in the Mountain West, but the overall bubble picture is very weak at this point, so who knows. Three of the next four are away from home.
PAC 10
Locks: NONE | Should Be In: Washington | Bubble: Arizona, California, Washington State, UCLA
  • Arizona (18-4) | RPI: 21 | SOS: 44 | – The Wildcats have posted a stellar record but are just 1-3 vs. Top 50 teams (beating UCLA at home). There’s nothing from the non-conference resume helping as the best win is Oklahoma. UA also has an ugly loss at Oregon State. Right now, Arizona would make the field, but it’s too early to move them off the bubble. They need to continue to stay at the top of the Pac-10 standings. A tricky three-game road stretch is next.
  • California (12-9) | RPI: 57 | SOS: 14 | – A strong SOS is keeping Cal in the mix as is a 5-4 league mark. That said, the Bears’ lone Top 50 win is at home vs. Temple, and Cal is 1-7 vs. Top 50 RPI teams. That mark will have to improve. Cal is also 8-9 vs. the Top 200 which usually means a no-go for the NCAAs. Next four games are critical.
  • Washington State (15-6) | RPI: 64 | SOS: 84 | – Beating Washington at home Sunday night kept WSU in the current bracket. It was the Cougars’ first Top 50 win (1-4). Other notable wins are Baylor and Gonzaga, but those are bubble teams at this point, too. A 3-3 road mark is acceptable, but WSU needs to up its 5-4 mark in league play. The Pac-10 isn’t deep and WSU needs to finish in the top three to feel safe.
  • UCLA (14-7) | RPI: 47 | SOS: 31 | – The Bruins have a good home win over BYU in their pocket, but that’s only going to last so long. At 6-3 in the league, UCLA needs to stay near the top of the heap. RPI and SOS numbers are good, but UCLA is just 1-4 vs. Top 50 RPI teams and 3-7 vs. Top 100 teams. Neither suggests they’ve done enough. A home date with St. John’s is a big opportunity to post another solid non-conference win.
SEC
Locks: Kentucky | Should Be In: Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt | Bubble: Georgia
  • Georgia (14-6) | RPI: 43 | SOS: 41| – The Bulldogs are talented enough to make the NCAAs, but can they win enough SEC games? An early victory over Kentucky helps, as does a win over UAB – another bubble team. Still, with a 2-6 mark vs. Top 50 teams, Georgia needs to start winning close games. All of the Bulldogs losses have been to teams ranked in the Top 40 of the RPI, so that’s a plus. The schedule is favorable over the next two weeks. There’s also a home game with Xavier that could help.
BEST OF THE REST
Locks: NONE | Should Be In: NONE | Bubble: Butler, Cleveland State, Missouri State, Northern Iowa, Wichita State, Old Dominion, George Mason, VCU, Memphis, Southern Mississippi, UAB, UTEP, Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, UAB, Utah State
  • Butler (13-8) | RPI: 42 | SOS: 28 | – The NCAA runner-ups have struggled much of the season with the exception of the Diamond Head Classic where the Bulldogs beat Florida State and Washington State. Within the Horizon, BU has a good win over Cleveland State but has fallen off the pace with 3 sub-100 losses, including being swept by Milwaukee. Butler missed chances with Duke, Xavier, and Louisville. Without a lot of wins down the stretch, it’ll be dicey if the Bulldogs fade in the Horizon tournament.
  • Cleveland State (18-3) | RPI: 29 | SOS: 141 | – CSU best wins are Kent State and Wright State – having lost to both Butler and Valparaiso in the Horizon. With an 0-2 mark vs. Top 50 teams, CSU really needs to beat Butler and Valpo at home down the stretch. An outright Horizon title will help, but may not be enough given the so-so SOS numbers.
  • Missouri State (17-5) | RPI: 45 | SOS: 111 | – Failing to win a meaningful non-conference game and a non-league SOS of No. 225 hurts the Bears’ chances. A clear Missouri Valley title would be a huge benefit. MSU does have a win at Wichita State and probably needs to sweep the Shockers. This is a good team that’s light on quality wins.
  • Northern Iowa (16-6) | RPI: 51 | SOS: 108 | – With MVC road wins at Missouri State and Wichita State, we have to include the Panthers. They’ve also beaten fellow bubbler New Mexico. UNI has four sub-100 losses, however, and needs to at least tie for the MVC title to have a realistic chance. The BracketBuster with George Mason is a must-get.
  • Wichita State (17-4) | RPI: 48 | SOS: 109 | – The Shockers let a second-half lead slip away against UConn in Maui and WSU has yet to win a Top 50 RPI game (0-3). In fact, WSU is 0-4 vs. Top 100 teams. A 5-1 record in true road games and being tied atop the MVC standings is keeping WSU on the cutline. That, and no bad losses – something we can’t say about a lot of teams. The BracketBuster matchup with VCU looms large.
  • Memphis (16-5) | RPI: 35 | SOS: 47 | – Somebody has to win Conference USA, and the Tigers are playing better. Winning at UAB helps, although an early tally over Miami-FL is fading some. There’s a bad loss at SMU and a 1-3 mark vs. Top 50 teams. The plus is 5 Top 100 wins, however. It doesn’t help that Memphis was largely non-competitive in losses to Kansas, Tennessee, and Georgetown. Upcoming trip to Gonzaga could be telling.
  • UAB (15-5) | RPI: 37 | SOS: 74 | – The Blazers are a solid team that lacks a marquee win. They are 0-3 vs. Top 50 teams (Duke, Memphis, Georgia). UAB’s best win is probably VCU at home. There’s also losses at Tulsa and Arizona State. Rematch at Memphis is huge as the Blazers can stay at the top of the C-USA standings.
  • Southern Mississippi (14-5) | RPI: 67 | SOS: 140 | – With just two Top 100 wins, So. Miss has to keep plugging along. They can’t afford many more conference losses. A non-conference SOS ranked No. 256 won’t help.
  • UTEP (16-5) | RPI: 62 | SOS: 131 | – Of UTEP’s 16 D-I wins, 14 are to teams ranked outside the Top 100 of the RPI. The best is an early win over Michigan. Add in three sub-100 losses and the Miners are here as a fringe candidate with a 5-2 C-USA mark. Probably have to win the C-USA title for serious consideration.
  • Old Dominion (17-5) | RPI: 31 | SOS: 51 | – Monarchs have a pretty good profile if they can stay at the top of the Colonial standings. Solid non-conference wins include Xavier, Richmond and Clemson. ODU also played Georgetown to within three points. A 7-4 mark vs. Top 100 teams helps. The BracketBuster with Cleveland State could be helpful.
  • VCU (18-5) | RPI: 53 | SOS: 153 | – The Rams currently lead the CAA and may need to stay there to make the Dance. Talented, VCU has a good neutral court win over UCLA. There’s a good loss to Tennessee, but also a miscue at Georgia State. Rematches with ODU and Geo Mason at home are huge, as is a BracketBuster with Wichita State.
  • George Mason (17-5) | RPI: 34 | SOS: 79 | – George Mason lacks a Top 50 RPI win but has won 7 straight and stands alone in second place in the CAA. It’ll take some work, but an outright CAA title could be enough to give the Patriots a fighting chance. A BracketBuster win at Northern Iowa would help, too.
  • Gonzaga (13-8) | RPI: 87 | SOS: 52 | – The Zags have fallen all the way to the bubble thanks to eight losses and a 1-5 mark vs. Top 50 RPI teams. There are some good wins – Baylor, Xavier, Marquette – that could get better. A good SOS always helps. A big issue is being two games back of St. Mary’s in the WCC. Big week for the Zags with a trip to Portland and a home date with Memphis. The losses at Santa Clara and San Francisco are hurting right now.
  • St. Mary’s (16-4) | RPI: 33 | SOS: 104 | – Winning an outright WCC title could be enough as long as St. Mary’s doesn’t lose many more games – especially to teams other than Gonzaga or maybe Portland. An early win over St. John’s helps, but the Gaels were blown out at Vanderbilt and have only the one Top 50 win. At 2-4 vs. Top 100 teams, St. Mary’s is a long way from being a lock.
  • Utah State (20-2) | RPI: 30 | SOS: 164 | – The Aggies have a lot of wins but none to teams ranked in the Top 100 of the RPI. That’s a major hurdle to overcome. USU missed against BYU and Georgetown and has only one Top 100 team left on its schedule – the BracketBuster at St. Mary’s. Lose that and USU may still have to win its conference tournament.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.